Dessay Lucia Di Lammermoor Sextet

Mary Zimmerman's new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor which opened the 2007-2008 Metropolitan Opera season has not been received with universal enthusiasm by the opera going public. There are aspects of it which are slightly troubling, and certain inconsistencies with the libretto. It is unclear why she chose to update the drama from its original late seventeenth century setting to the mid-nineteenth century, but the results of so doing include making the premise for the Ashton-Ravenswood feud rather less likely, and Edgardo's mission to France a very strange whim, given how far beyond the auld alliance Zimmerman's context is.

There are gains to be made as well however, since Enrico's straightened circumstances and faded grandeur can be more acutely conveyed when their effects are shown in a dishevelled nineteenth-century reception room as opposed to a seventeenth-century baronial hall, when the interior design options available were more primitive.

The look of the whole production, with the exception of the Wolf's Crag scene where the set is rather perfunctory, is fantastic. Act I, Scene 2 in particular, the fountain in the woods, has a set of breathtaking realism, with snow falling throughout the harp solo, and some excellent lighting design to show dawn breaking and the sun gradually rising throughout the love duet.

The actual direction of the singers is rather more variable. There is quite a lot of detail in the love duet for instance, which certainly prevented it from seeming like the operatic set piece it has the potential to come across as. Zimmerman has staged it so that at his first reference to having to leave, Edgardo gives Lucia a quick peck on the cheek and attempts a hasty exit. The rest of the duet is played out as Lucia attempting to delay his departure for as long as possible, extracting more kisses and promises of devotion, catching his hand every time Edgardo tries to go. Although this brilliantly suggests the dynamics of young love, it shifted the parameters of their relationship to the extent that Lucia seemed extremely needy and Edgardo rather less keen. Given that his ardour is such that he goes on to kill himself at the news of Lucia's demise, I didn't feel this accurately captured the spirit of the characters or their relationship with each other.

Other scenes, such as the opening outside Lammermoor Castle, scarcely seemed to have been directed at all. The gentlemen of the chorus were left with nothing to do but stand in an evenly distributed rabble, and Mariusz Kwiecien, apparently in the absence of having been given any better ideas, ended up delivering large parts of Enrico's aria front, centre stage, with his arms outstretched, a stand and deliver approach which ceased to be the norm in opera productions quite some years ago. The same thing happened to John Relyea in Raimondo's aria in Act III, Scene 2, and it is difficult to see what his alternative was, since he was getting next to no response from the chorus to the shocking events he was relating.

Zimmerman does appear to have paid significant attention to the chorus during the Sextet in Act II, Scene 2, where they have the function of acting as gossips, observing what should be a tense dramatic situation following the sudden entrance of Edgardo after Lucia has signed her marriage contract with Arturo. Unfortunately, tension is lacking from this scene owing to some very distracting staging. Although I do think having a photographer at the wedding is an idea which could have worked very well, the decision to use it during the sextet was misguided. Given what we have seen of the hot blooded Enrico and Edgardo in the preceding scenes in the drama, the likelihood of their having enough passivity to submit to a photo shoot at this point is low, and the absurdness of the situation robs the music of its emotional punch.

Other controversial ideas definitely did pay off. Zimmerman's great strength with Lucia appeared to be getting the coloratura to mean something. Initially, I was disappointed with Natalie Dessay (in the title role), who seemed disengaged with the dramatic situation. The trills and flourishes around the words 'E l'onda pria sì limpida, Di sangue rosseggiò!' are clearly in the score to convey fear, but with Dessay they didn't appear to communicate any discernible emotion. But in the cabaletta to the entrance aria, the coloratura was used to express girlish joy, to get at Alisa, and gradually turn her around to Lucia's way of thinking, so that she did eventually relent and allow Lucia to delight in her love. Michaela Martens, as Alisa, acted superbly to allow this to come across.

Inevitably, it was the mad scene where Zimmerman and Dessay created their best work. Having been dramatically underwhelming in Act I, Dessay grew in stature during Act II and proved herself to be a strong actress during the duet with Enrico and the wedding scene. But nothing had prepared me for the impact she made in the mad scene. It was quite simply the most impressive and skilful acting I have seen on the operatic stage. Vocally, she was imperfect, and at times rather raddled, but the way she delivered the coloratura and the top notes in the service of the drama was remarkable. The run on the repetition of 'da' tuoi nemici' was very expressive, accompanied by a physical spasm which made it a totally convincing manifestation of her extreme mental state. Countless examples of this abounded throughout the scene, but the top B flat she let out as a cry of pain when she received a shot in the arm from the doctor was particularly deeply affecting, and the rage and victimisation she conveyed through the embellished second verse of 'spargi d'amaro pianto' in response to this was almost painful to watch, so thrillingly immediate did the drama seem. Having chorus members carry her out, so that the crowning E flat came across as Lucia was literally being dragged off kicking and screaming (with no criticism of Dessay's delivery of this note being intended in the use of the word 'screaming'), was a brilliant idea. I'm not sure I have ever seen a piece of opera direction manage to justify an un-written display note with quite that much success.

Of course, the mad scene is a hard act to follow, particularly when given such a dramatically compelling performance as Dessay's. However, Giuseppe Filianoti as Edgardo had got the audience very much on side in his earlier scenes through some very emotionally direct phrasing and acting, so that he was well received. His singing earlier in the evening had been appealing, if not completely free of issues, but by the end of his final scene he was absolutely exhausted. He had enough commitment to carry his difficult closing aria off, but his top notes betrayed considerable strain. He was assisted by some very sympathetic and subtle conducing from Joseph Colaneri who ensured Filianoti did not have to linger any longer than necessary outside of his comfort zone. Indeed, Colaneri gave great support to the whole cast in what is inevitably a voice-led opera, allowing them the freedom they needed to create effects consistent with the bel canto style. He also kept a tight grip on the drama in the large set pieces, such as the Act II finale and moved it forward with expert skill. The orchestra was as typically suave as one has come to expect from the Met, but also incredibly delicate when called for, such as the beautifully atmospheric opening bars in the horns and woodwind.

Kwiecien and Relyea were both vocally excellent and did what they could to be dramatically involving within the constraints of their scenes, but a very strong impression was made by the young Stephen Costello as Arturo, which is no mean feat in such a small role. His heavy lyric tenor voice struck me as one to watch, and he was pleasing on stage in scenic terms.

This was a fascinating evening in the theatre, with a beautiful, if occasionally aimless production, and variable vocal performances. However, its crowning glory, Dessay's electrifying performance of a brilliant staging of the mad scene, will I suspect remain one of the most moving and involving experiences I have had in the theatre for many years to come. Two other celebrated sopranos with strong dramatic instincts, Diana Damrau and Anna Netrebko, are scheduled for a revival of this production in the 2008-09 season, and it will be riveting to see how they each make it their own, so incredibly distinctive and successful was Dessay's achievement.

By John Woods

 

“Lucia di Lammermoor” is a tale of rival families, and poor Lucia is caught in the middle. Her brother, Lord Enrico Ashton, panicked that he has squandered the family holdings through his obsessive battling with the hated Ravenswood clan, wants Lucia to marry the wealthy Lord Arturo. But she has fallen for the Ravenswood heir, Edgardo, whose passion is in some ways as oppressive as her brother’s bullying. Lucia has become a fragile thing who keeps seeing a ghost of an ancestor who was killed by a jealous Ravenswood lover.

Ms. Zimmerman has done some miraculous work in the theater, including her adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” She is newer to opera, and her work here, though compelling, seems less confident. As she has said in recent interviews, “Lucia” is sometimes milked for psychological subtexts, sometimes treated as historical melodrama. A director could present Lucia’s ghostly visions as evidence of her shaky mental state or as a real part of the world Scott depicts.

Ms. Zimmerman opts to do a little of both these approaches, which could have been a recipe for disaster. Not here, for the most part. The sets deftly mix abstract and storybook imagery: in the first scene, for example, where a mossy mound of grass and brush sits atop shiny geometrical floorboards, with a background of leafless trees.

In trying to make the phantoms of the opera real, Ms. Zimmerman sometimes goes too far, as in Lucia’s first scene, when she appears at the fountain where she has met Edgardo and encountered the ghost. Ms. Dessay looked both striking and pitiable in her sensible walking dress, complete with hat and boots. But as Lucia tells her companion, Alisa, of the ghost she has seen, singing the alluring aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” we see the ghost, a haunted, pasty-faced young woman, who beckons Lucia.

Though a powerful image, it proved a distraction to Ms. Dessay’s lustrous singing. Sometimes in opera the music alone is the drama, especially when performed as vibrantly as it was here.

Ms. Zimmerman also seems to have been impatient with the dramatically static sextet in Act II, when the distraught Lucia, duped into thinking Edgardo unfaithful, marries Lord Arturo. Edgardo comes bursting into the wedding party, and everything stops as the justly famous sextet begins. Donizetti meant for the main characters to be frozen in place as they mull over their own thoughts. Nothing happens. That’s the point. The tension is internalized in the soaring and elegant music.

Instead Ms. Zimmerman invents an action: the wedding participants and guests are assembled by a photographer for a formal photo. Though the moment is beautifully directed, this staging device, again, overwhelmed the stirring performance.

But mostly Ms. Zimmerman has imaginative staging ideas and elicits nuanced portrayals from the cast. In Ms. Dessay’s first scene Lucia breaks into an ecstatic cabaletta to sing of her heady love for Edgardo. Racing about the stage as she sang, Ms. Dessay, in midphrase, skidded on a floorboard and fell down. Born actress that she is, she just kept singing, shrugging her shoulders as if to say, “What are you going to do?,” then finished the aria in triumph. Her response was actually in character for a young woman all giddy in love.

Staging and singing worked in tandem arrestingly during Lucia’s Mad Scene. The set was almost abstract, just a bare balcony and spiral staircase against a backdrop of blue night sky and moon. The crazed Lucia, having stabbed her husband to death on their wedding night, appears on the balcony to the terrified guests. With her huge, vacant eyes, just as in those posters all over town, and her bloodied dress, Ms. Dessay moved not with halting steps but in nervous spurts. When she recalled melodic phrases from the love duets, she sang in a voice by turns tremulous, pale, throbbing and unsettlingly brilliant.

Ms. Dessay’s Edgardo was the Italian tenor Marcello Giordani. His singing was not flawless. He sometimes bellowed and lacked pianissimo subtlety. Still, he has genuine Italianate style and an exciting, robust voice. Mariusz Kwiecien has emerged in recent seasons as a major baritone. This handsome and dynamic young Polish artist was a vocally impassioned Enrico, who made that sometimes flat character seem in ways as desperate as the sister he controls.

The commanding bass John Relyea brought rare dignity to the often cardboard role of Raimondo, the chaplain who advises Enrico, causing no end of trouble. An appealing young tenor, Stephen Costello, had a solid Met debut as the well-meaning Arturo.

Presiding over it all was Mr. Levine, who conducted with pliant bel canto grace while keeping the overall performance taut, crisp and articulate. This familiar score has seldom sounded so virile, sweeping and multilayered.

When Mr. Levine appeared for curtain calls, Ms. Dessay bowed and touched the stage floor in tribute. She probably thinks photographs of Mr. Levine should be plastered all over New York as well. She looks better and will sell more tickets, especially when word gets out.

LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR

Opera in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti; libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, after Sir Walter Scott’s novel “The Bride of Lammermoor”; conductor, James Levine; production by Mary Zimmerman; sets by Daniel Ostling; costumes by Mara Blumenfeld; lighting by T. J. Gerckens. At the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, through Oct. 25. Running time: 3 hours 25 minutes.

WITH: Natalie Dessay (Lucia), Marcello Giordani (Edgardo), Mariusz Kwiecien (Enrico), Stephen Costello (Arturo) and John Relyea (Raimondo).

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